Tablet computers don’t end with Apple’s iPad. When the American technology giant launched its first touchscreen gadget, it created a whole new way to work, play and have fun on the move.
Since that machine was unveiled in 2009, dozens more tablets have gone on sale, with Apple’s rivals using software based on Android mobile phones or Windows 7 computers.
But with so many to choose from, it can be hard to understand which will suit your needs.
Our guide below is designed to help you out when shopping for a tablet computer, and contains the most important things you need to think about when buying one.
What different types of tablets are there?
Tablets are like mini computers, but without any keyboard. They simply consist of a screen, which is controlled using touch.
The best-known tablet computer currently is the Apple iPad 2, which works on a dedicated operating system called iOS. It is the same as the one found on the iPhone and iPod touch.
Others from the likes of Asus, Motorola, Samsung, Binatone, Viewsonic and Hannspree use the Google operating system known as Android, as found on a huge range of mobile phones.
Acer and Archos both use a Windows 7 operating system from Microsoft, just like your desktop PC or laptop, while HP’s TouchPad and the BlackBerry PlayBook works with their own homegrown OS software.
Which operating system (OS) is better?
The OS is the brain of the computer, controlling everything you see and do and each tablet OS has its own benefits. For example, PC owners will be most familiar with the design and function of Windows tablets while Mac owners will have a better initial understanding of the iPad.
But Windows tablets are not designed from the ground up to take full advantage of being used on the move.
Apple’s iOS is widely acknowledged as the easiest to use and understand. It works well for multitasking so you can have many programs open at once on the screen and swap between them. However, it doesn’t work with websites using Flash technology to display moving images and videos.
The latest 3.0 version of Android from Google, known as Honeycomb, has been designed with tablets in mind to make it speedy, stable and simple to navigate.
The Android system can be customised, optimised and tweaked by different tablet manufacturers to suit their own specifications. It’s key feature is that it can also run flash-based
videos and web content.
Android devices allow you to multitask, just like on your home PC. You can run multiple applications at the same time, so listen to the radio while playing a game or take a photo and share it with your social networks.
It also works seamlessly with Google’s own services such as Gmail, Docs and Talk.
What would I use a tablet for?
You might be surprised by how much a tablet computer can actually do. You can read books, interact with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, surf the internet, watch movies
including those on YouTube, listen to music, play games and work on documents and spreadsheets.
You are also able to edit pictures and video, find out where you are on a map, take photos on those with a built-in camera, talk to family and friends across the world and much, much more.
Why wouldn’t I just use a Netbook or Laptop?
Unlike a portable computer, tablets are lighter, thinner and faster, making them ultra-portable. They are also far easier to use, turning on instantly and having batteries that can last three or four times longer. They also work with apps, small pieces of software that are downloaded, many for free, providing your tablet with all sorts of programs and games without needing to install them from a disc.
Do they all use the same apps?
No, but there is a huge crossover between what is available in Apple’s App Store and the Android Market. These are the two main places apps can be downloaded from, straight onto the tablet’s screen.
Apple have the most apps, more than 425,000, and recently topped 15 billion downloads. Android has more than 200,000. A wealth of apps are available, to help you work, chill out with entertainment, improve your health, make your day-to-day life easier and more practical or just to have weird and wacky fun. You’ll be amazed at what can be downloaded
and soon wonder how you lived without it.
How else can I choose between them?
Key aspects of tablet computers to consider include:
These range from 7in to 10in. If you watch a lot of movies, you may want a bigger display. If it’s only to check emails and surf the web, a smaller, more portable, device may be better.
Look for screens that reflect less light so they can be used outside and ones with coatings to prevent scratches and fingerprints. Many work with quicker gesture-based controls, such as
pinching your fingers to zoom in and out on web pages.
This can go from five hours to 16 but is impacted by many factors. Simple word processing or email checking will make the battery last longer. Downloading large files, surfing the web and watching video will zap power. Leaving your Wi-Fi turned on will also drain the battery.
Tablets generally have 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage space with the most expensive devices having the most. Even on the lowest 16GB version you can still store thousands of music tracks and dozens of films, but if you’re buying a tablet mainly for entertainment then the more memory the better.
Some tablets feature a memory card slot to increase space or to upload pictures taken on your digital camera. The iPad 2 needs a special connector however to use a memory card with it.
All tablets come with Wi-Fi built-in allowing you to log on to the web using a wireless internet signal. Others such as the iPad 2 are also available with 3G, and contain a mobile phone SIM card to provide an always-on data connection, paid for monthly or on Pay As You Go.
What else should I be looking for?
Other cool and useful features on tablets include cameras on the front and back. These allow you to take pictures and hold video calls but range widely in quality from a basic 1.3 megapixels to 5 megapixels.
If you want to connect your tablet to a TV so you can watch content stored on it, then look for one with an HDMI port. Apple’s iPad needs a separate adaptor to do this but can wirelessly stream content if you own an Apple TV box.
What else should I be aware of?
Various accessories are available for each tablet from cases and stands to docks. The Asus Transformer even has a keyboard that can be bought separately that turns it into a folding laptop.
It is also worth noting that Apple’s iPad 2 is less customisable than other systems. It locks you in to using certain programs and features, unlike Android.
Android owners can also download new operating system software updates directly through the device while iPad users must connect it to a computer. This will change when a new version of the iPad’s iOS, called 5.0, is released later this year.
Google’s operating software, a system which manages and controls all aspects of the tablet’s use.
Small pieces of software that extend the functionality of your tablet. They can be downloaded straight to the device. Hundreds of thousands are available for everything from emails to games and music to sport.
Apple’s operating system, that is found across the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. Version 5 is due in the autumn of 2011.
Technology built-in to every tablet to create a wireless internet connection with your modem or router. Allows you to surf the web away from home when connected to an internet signal in places such as shops, restaurants and airports.
The built-in mobile connection that through a mobile phone SIM card creates an always-on connection to the internet. Data is measured in megabytes and is charged on a Pay Monthly or Pay As You Go basis.
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